The Celts in Ireland had several festivals to celebrate important landmarks throughout the year. These coincided with key events such as the summer and winter solstices, and the spring and autumn equinoxes. However, the most important festivals in Celtic lore fell between these times. They were the seasonal festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Bealtaine and Lughnasadh.
Samhain (pronounced Sow-een, or Shah-vin or even Sav-wen) is perhaps the most celebrated of all the Celtic festivals and many of the traditions from this night still carry on today.
It fell on the sunset of October 31st (in ancient times, probably whenever the nearest full moon fell) and traditionally carried on until the next sunset or for several days.
Samhain celebrated the end of summer and the harvest. It was a time for bringing the animals down from the hills for shelter and taking stock for the dark winter ahead.
Traditionally, bonfires would be lit and the cattle (those that were not slaughtered and eaten) would be lead through them to be blessed for the coming year.
On this night, it was believed that the veil between our world and the Otherworld would be lifted, allowing loved ones who had passed over to journey back to the living and feast at the celebration. They were often set a place at the table as an invitation.
Unfortunately, it also meant that malevolent beings such as fairies and pixies could hitch a ride across ready to cause mischief and misfortune wherever they went. People used to carve faces into vegetables and create grotesque masks to keep the fairies at bay and ward them away from their dwellings.
When Christianity came to Ireland back in 400 AD they observed the old pagan ways and eventually incorporated them into their own faith. The Christian festival All Saints Day, also known as Hallowmas or All Hallows was made to fall on November 1st, making the night before that All Hallows Eve.
All Hallows Eve became Halloween and although the costumes and the vegetables may have changed a little, the traditions of the old Celtic festival Samhain are still very much a part of that night around the world in the today.
Imbolc is the festival to mark the beginning of Spring.
Celebrated on February 1st, or on the nearest full moon, Imbolc was observed in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. In Wales, a similar festival called Gwyl Fair Y Canhwyllau was celebrated.
The name comes from the old Irish ‘Imbolg’ which meant ‘in the belly’ referring to the pregnancy of ewes which occurs during this time of year. It was associated with the Celtic goddess of fertility, Brighid.
Imbolc was a festival closely related to the home and hearth. Traditionally, at Imbolc, Brighid’s crosses were made out of Rushes or Reeds and hung on doors and rafters of houses.
A life-sized straw doll of Brighid would be made and paraded through the town going from door to door. Brighid was believed to visit the people’s homes on Imbolc and so food, drink and a bed would be laid out especially for her as an offering of hospitality in exchange for her blessing.
People would leave items of clothing or cloth outside their doors during the night in order for Brighid to bless them. There would also be a great feast and people would visit the holy wells to make offerings in return for blessings of good health. Fires were lit as a symbol of the return of longer days and warmth.
With the coming of Christianity, the goddess Brighid was adopted as St Brighid. In many parts of Ireland, St Brighid’s day is still celebrated on 1st February and many of the old traditions are still kept alive.
The Celtic festival of Bealtaine or Beltane (Lá Bealtaine in old Irish) marked the beginning of summer. It was traditionally celebrated on the night of April 30th to May 1st and is now generally known as the Gaelic May Day festival.
In the Celtic calendar, Bealtaine, like Samhain and Imbolc is a Cross Quarter Day – meaning it is midway between an equinox and a solstice, in this case mid-way between the Spring Equinox (when night and day were of equal length) and the Summer Solstice (the longest day).
The main ritual of Bealtaine was the building and lighting of bonfires. Smoke from the Bealtaine bonfire was thought to have protective qualities, both from natural and supernatural forces. Traditionally, two large bonfires were lit and people would walk through the middle of them with their cattle ensuring that the smoke engulfed them, thus protecting them as they were driven out to summer pastures. In some places cattle were taken to fairy mounds and bled as an offering, the blood would then be tasted by the herdsmen and poured into the ground where it was then burnt.
The Sí (fairies) were believed to be very active around Bealtaine and Samhain. Many of the rituals around these festivals were designed to keep the Sí happy so their mischief would not harm the people or their animals.
To protect their homes, all hearth fires would be put out and embers from the Bealtaine fires would be used to relight them. Doors, windows and barns were decorated in bright yellow May flowers which were perhaps symbols of the fire. When the Bealtaine fires died down, the ash was scattered over crops as extra protection.
In some parts of Ireland, thorn bushes, which were considered particularly significant to the fairies, would be decorated in flowers, ribbons and coloured shells to make a May bush. This practice went on across Ireland well into the 19th century, as did the bonfires and the practice of walking cattle through them, although by the 20th century Bealtaine as a festival had largely died out.
There has been a Bealtaine revival in modern times with the rise in popularity of Neopaganism, Wicca and the Celtic Reconstructionist movement which celebrates the old traditions of pre-Christian Celts.